Originally posted June 2009


April 2009 should have been a month for political campaigning, peaceful contestation, and parliamentary elections. Yet springtime in Arabia Felix has been characterized by political violence, instability, and calls for disunity. Instead of opening polls, the regime is erecting checkpoints, enforcing curfews, and stifling press freedoms. Instead of following through on promises of political and economic reform, tanks, artillery, and military personnel are moving into the south to crush popular dissent. Indeed, recent events reveal the increasing vulnerability of the regime and even the unity of the state.

Of the numerous and intertwined challenges facing the Salih regime, the evolving protest movement in south Yemen is quickly emerging as Sana‘a’s most pressing political threat. The crisis has been long in coming, with numerous opportunities for President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih to act in enlightened self-interest to address the demands for services, jobs, rule of law, and a degree of regional autonomy. Yet Salih has repeatedly failed to adequately address southern grievances. Instead, he has chosen a path of co-option, targeted repression, and inadequate concessions which only has provoked greater opposition. What started as a peaceful protest movement demanding reform within the context of unity has shifted towards a movement for an independent South Yemen. In some cases, this movement has even turned violent in its struggle against the regime.

Several recent events suggest that there is an escalating crisis in the south with potentially devastating consequences for Yemeni civilians there, the national economy as a whole, and ultimately the viability of the state. First and foremost, there is a shift in southern rhetoric from reform in the context of unity to demands for independence. When organized protest began in the spring of 2007, those calling for immediate independence were a fringe minority. Today, however, the balance is changing. Several prominent southern politicians, including ‘Ali Salem al-Beedh and Haydar al-Attas, are opening the door to independence, asserting that the current unification model is untenable. Moreover, domestic observers and prominent political figures, including the former presidential candidate Faysal bin Shamlan, suggest that grassroots opinion in the south no longer supports unity ― at least under Salih’s leadership. While some southerners may be using the call for independence as a tactical bargaining maneuver, many worry that violence could quickly transform this demand into a non-negotiable commitment. Certainly, this is the case among portions of the expatriate Yemeni community in the United States. At a rally in Washington, DC on May 11, 2009, a group of southern protestors, carrying pictures of slain civilians and signs demanding press freedoms, chanted slogans in support of southern independence. When asked if Salih could take any actions to rectify the situation, they replied that unity is no longer on the table.

A second ominous trend is the escalation of violence and repression. From 2007 to 2008, the protest movement was overwhelmingly peaceful, even in the face of government repression. (There was a brief exception in April and March of 2008 when protestors set fire to police stations, primarily in the governorate of Dhalia.) Confrontation in 2009, however, is more violent, organized, and risky. Skirmishes and protests were particularly intense around the April 27, 2009 anniversary of the 1994 civil war. On that day, rioting broke out in the normally peaceful governorate of Hadramawt. In Abyan, thousands of protestors from around the south gathered in an anti-government demonstration in the capital of Zanjibar. (The area just north of Zanjibar had been a battleground between southerners and the government in February 2009.) The epicenter of the conflict, however, is in Dhalia and the area of Radfan (a district in the governorate of Lahj). In these regions, former southern military men have organized militias to fight the advance of the northern army. While these groups lack heavy weaponry, they are familiar with the mountainous terrain and are arguably more motivated than the underpaid and demoralized forces of the central government.

For its part, the regime is becoming more aggressive in its struggle to tamp down the secessionist threat. The government has moved heavy artillery and weaponry into the south, particularly into Lahj and Dhalia, to quash the opposition. Rhetoric and political theater in the capital also verifies a militant turn. Salih has warned that southern secession will result in “many Yemens” and fighting from “house to house.” On May 22, 2009, in celebration of the anniversary of Yemen’s unity, the regime staged an expensive and wasteful display of military might in the capital, complete with an over-flight exhibition of MIG 29 fighter jets purchased from Russia. In addition, the regime is engaged in a ruthless attack on press freedoms. In early May, the government illegally suspended the publication of seven opposition papers: al-Mustaqilla, al-Masdar, al-Watani, al-Diyar, al-Nida‘, al-Share‘, and al-Ayyam, as well as several popular blogs. Since then, the government has established a special court in Sana‘a to prosecute journalists. Of all the brazen attacks, the relentless harassment of the south’s most prominent newspaper, al-Ayyam, has drawn the most popular ire. Government-sponsored vigilante militias, known as “Committees for the Defense of Unity,” intercepted al-Ayyam’s distribution trucks and burned its newspapers. After that, on May 13, 2009, government security forces attempted to storm al-Ayyam’s headquarters in Aden, resulting in one death and three injuries. In short, both the regime and southerners are engaging in increasingly risky behavior that may result in a self-sustaining cycle of violence.

Another worrisome trend in the evolving crisis is the emerging role of violent Islamist actors. In recent months, both the southern opposition movement and the Salih regime have intentionally incorporated, and in other cases unintentionally attracted, violent Islamist elements. In a move that is all too reminiscent of the unification/civil war period, the regime in Sana‘a is repeating old patterns by informally encouraging Islamists to harass and attack the southern opposition. At Friday sermons, state sponsored ulama preach against the “separatists” and urge Yemenis to protect unity. Even more alarming, Yemeni sources suggest that Salih is allowing and tacitly supporting the formation of vigilante militias, like the “Committees for the Defense of Unity,” to intimidate the south. Moreover, Shaykh Abdul Majid al-Zindani has been quite vocal in calling for violent opposition, and he has blamed the United States and foreign actors for inciting secessionist demands. Shaykh Zindani, along with Shaykh Sadeq al-Ahmar, issued a joint communiqué warning that unity will be defended ― no matter how much blood is shed.

For their part, the southern movement is also becoming entangled with violent Islamist groups. In early 2009, the government mounted a major offensive to wrest control over two cities in Abyan, Zanjibar and Ja‘ar, away from an Islamist militia controlled by Tarik al-Fadli.[1] In response, al-Fadli, a former associate of ‘Usama bin Ladin and supporter of the Salih regime, defected to join the southern movement. Given al-Fadli’s past affiliations, many in the movement were initially skeptical. Yet al-Fadli has deep roots in Abyan (his father was a former Sultan), and it seems that at least for now he is an accepted part of the movement and a leader in his area. In addition to al-Fadli, al-Qa‘ida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has claimed solidarity with the southern cause. On May 13, 2009, the leader of AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhaishi, announced his support for the southern protestors and called for establishing Islamic rule in Yemen. Wuhaishi lashed out at President Salih, labeling him as an infidel and an agent of oppression. The motivations behind this announcement are not entirely clear. One possible explanation is that AQAP is using the southern cause as a bargaining chip to force Salih’s retreat from his efforts to curtail AQAP activities. Another explanation is that AQAP was acting on instructions from its patrons inside the regime. In other words, the organization has no intention of following through on its promises of solidarity, but is instead stirring the political pot of elite rivalry inside the Salih regime. Whatever the motivations, there is no indication that the southern movement has sought, or is accepting, AQAP support.

Thus, the window for avoiding protracted violence, and with it an accelerated slide into central government collapse, is closing rapidly. In fact, given the hardened position of many southerners, there is no guarantee that unity can be preserved under Salih’s rule. If Salih continues to combine co-option, targeted repression, and empty promises of reform, the crisis will gradually escalate. While these tactics may buy Salih a few months of reduced tensions, they will not address underlying grievances and will ensure that Yemen stays on its current path towards state failure.

If Salih chooses increased repression and overwhelming military force, as the authors fear he will, the pace of failure and the threat of humanitarian crisis will increase dramatically. This option would likely combine conventional military forces, the security services, and vigilante militias; this is by far the most dangerous strategy. In pursuing this option, the regime risks winning the conventional battle, while at the same time unifying the population behind the need to fight a prolonged guerrilla-style insurgency. Like the five-year-old insurgency in the northern governorate of Sa‘ada, guerrilla-style combat is possible and sustainable in parts of the former South as well. This is especially true if southerners receive outside funding and if the population is unified behind the need to defend themselves. Moreover, if an insurgency in the south were to correspond with a resurgent Huthi rebellion, both insurgencies would be strengthened as government forces are stretched thin. Unfortunately for the regime, the Huthi season is rapidly approaching, and there is already evidence, from the statements of al-Huthi followers and leaders of the secessionist opposition, that the two groups are coordinating their efforts. Finally, the involvement of violent Islamist elements in the southern conflict also could serve to protract and intensify fighting. In light of these complicating factors, the regime would be well advised to learn from the British experience in the rugged mountains of Dhalia and Radfan. The northern military easily defeated the South’s conventional forces in the 1994 civil war, yet today there is no conventional army to fight, only a potentially long and bloody counterinsurgency to execute.

Today, the best option for peacefully preserving unity is for the regime to participate in a mediated national dialogue. To be successful, this dialogue must produce far-reaching institutional reforms, particularly substantive political and economic decentralization. While Salih had the opportunity to direct this process in 2007 and 2008, he failed to do so effectively. As such, facts on the ground have changed. Patterns of broken promises and ad hoc reforms have chipped away at Salih’s bargaining credibility. It is now virtually impossible for the regime to peacefully resolve the crisis in the south without broad participation from domestic elites and the supervision of a credible outside mediator.

The presence of an outside, honest broker is increasingly a necessary condition for resolving the current crisis. Salih has lost his domestic bargaining credibility. Therefore an outside broker must guide, and to some degree guarantee, the terms of any agreement. Additionally, the Yemeni elite are fragmented and may require an outside agent to facilitate an inclusive dialogue and solution. Currently, no domestic actor has the clout to bring together a broad cross-section of Yemeni elites to include northerners, southerners, members of the ruling party, members of the Joint Meeting Parties, and most importantly, leaders of the grassroots southern movement. In particular, domestic bargaining and reconciliation is complicated by the nature of the southern opposition. Salih’s effort to marginalize the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) leadership, which supports unity, has helped to created a new group of populist, grassroots leaders in the south. The leadership of the grassroots protest movement often supports secession and it poses a formidable obstacle to bargaining within the parameters of unity. Given all parties’ profound distrust of Salih, and their internal fragmentation, an outside broker is necessary to facilitate a meaningful bargaining environment.

One potential regional broker could be the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). On April 29, 2009, a semi-official Saudi newspaper, al-Riyadh, published an editorial expressing concern over the state of affairs in Yemen and suggesting a national dialogue between all parties under the auspices of the GCC. While Yemen’s Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, have a long and duplicitous history of meddling in Yemeni affairs, at this point, the Kingdom has a pressing interest in supporting political and economic stability on its border. The threat of state failure in Yemen, and with it the risk of expanded sanctuary for al-Qa‘ida, is a grave concern in the Kingdom. As such, the GCC may have both sufficient incentives and the necessary clout to play a positive mediating role.

In sum, a peaceful resolution to the southern crisis partially depends on Salih’s willingness to significantly compromise and seriously address southern grievances. Resolution also will require a national dialogue guided by an external mediator. Unfortunately, there is no indication that Salih or his close supporters are considering any type of mediated negotiation. Even if they choose to act, the authors fear that their efforts will again be too little and too late.

As US policymakers continue to watch the unfolding events in Yemen, two areas of concern immediately present themselves. In the area of strategic communications, policymakers should realize that US support for “unity” could be interpreted in Yemen as the US Administration’s unflappable support of one-man rule in the form of Salih at the expense of all other considerations and much needed reforms. As such, the Administration should continue to emphasize US support for a “unified” Yemen that respects democratic institutions, the rule of law, press freedoms, and human rights.

A second area of concern is the strategic implications for the United States if Yemeni unity becomes imperiled through widespread, coordinated insurrection. In this scenario, the Salih regime would become completely focused on its survival at all costs. In the ensuing distraction, US interests would likely be neglected, if not ignored, by the Salih regime as it struggles to regain control of the south. In the unlikely event that the south were able to break away from the north, the ensuing economic collapse of the north’s economy would be difficult to halt. In the more likely event of a prolonged insurgency, the economic viability of the state would be threatened further, and internal unrest could provide additional space for al-Qa‘ida to expand its areas of influence. Finally, the maritime border could be used to facilitate movement of al-Qa‘ida supporters to/from the Horn of Africa and provide additional support nodes for piracy in the Gulf of Aden, a practice that is currently inhibited by US support for the nascent Yemeni Coast Guard. As such, the stability of a unified Yemen is in the best interests of the United States. Currently, the Salih regime remains both a hindrance to and a necessary partner in achieving this outcome.


[1] Al-Fadli is a seasoned mujahidin with close ties to the Salih regime. The commander of the northern district, ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, is married to al-Fadli’s sister.


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